In 1999, near Kruger National Park, I spent a day spent following the paw prints of lions.
Six would-be trackers and two rangers named Syd and Bernardo clump together and stare at a set of padded marks in the sand. "Which way?" Syd asks. We point variously in the same general direction. "Okay, ready?"
We scuff our feet. We're sort of ready. Syd hefts the rifle from its rack on the dash of our Land Rover and my eyes follow this motion. I nod to myself; the clenched spot in my chest relaxes a little. The lions of Kruger have learned to hunt humans. So far, a bullet into the ground at their feet has proven to be an effective deterrent.
Syd tells us it was three years ago that he last fired at a lion. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork! Every bullet has to be accounted for.”
We follow the tracks into the bush. Bernardo takes up the rear.
"I am here to stop you from running," he says with a small smile.
Eight people marching in a line and stepping on each other's heels are not easily identifiable as prey to a lion. But if I ran away from the group, I would trigger a hunting response: "Look! Breakfast! And it's fat! And slow!"
I step literally in the lions' tracks. They are about three-fourths the length of my boots. They are so fresh I can see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads. I take a deep breath and try to slow my pounding heart.
Slowly we make our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, early-warning radar for lions.
Syd picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall through his fingers, testing. A fluttering wind blows from the right direction, into our faces. If warned by our smell, the lions might decide to swing around behind and follow us. Bernardo keeps glancing backwards, as do I, the last one but for him in our column. Even though it's fall and many of the scrub thorns have lost their leaves, we cannot see very far behind or ahead. Syd and Bernardo occasionally confer back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan. I probably don't really want to know what they are saying.
Just beyond several deep gullies, the lions' footprints disappear into a thicket. Syd stops and listens intently, then sweeps his arm to the right. We will bypass this area, perfect for ambush, and see if lions have emerged on the other side.
In the open, grassy area beyond, our line bumps to a halt.
"See them?" Syd asks.
As if on cue, two heads pop up. The back of my brain starts freezing. My heart’s getting colder with each beat and I think I stopped breathing a long time ago. RUUNNNN! my brain yells to my legs, but they are so far away they can’t make out what all the shouting is about.
The lionesses are under trees on the far side of the field. They are lying down, but our invasion has made them curious. They stare at us, open-mouthed. The whir of a camera reminds me that mine is dangling around my neck. Through its telephoto the lions look less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.
Then, off to the right, another lion roars. Syd's eyes widen in surprise. A low "Tsssssss," escapes between his teeth. There are more lions here than we have seen tracks for. Everyone's head, including those of the lionesses, swivel in the direction of the roar. Even my hair follicles are listening.
Almost simultaneously a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounces into view near the lionesses and stops there. The woman driver surveys the two with her binoculars and writes something in a notebook. Bored with it all, the lions lie back down.
Momentarily distracted from the fact that there are lions to the left and lions to the right, we ask Syd, "Who's that?" Against all training, we have condensed into a tight ball around him. Even Bernardo has moved up.
Syd's still staring in the direction of the roar. "The ecologist," he says, "she works in the reserve."
The bakkie leaves the lions and rattles over the rough ground to where we are.
"Morning," the ecologist nods to each one of us in slow motion. I wonder to myself if the lion that roared is moving in our direction.
She looks at Syd. "There's a male about a quarter mile up the road. Be careful where you walk."
"Is it?" he says, "thanks." Their exchange is so matter-of-fact it sounds as if they're discussing potholes.
"Right then," she says and the bakkie joggles off. Not even an offer of a lift.
Bernardo and Syd have a short conversation in Shangaan. Then Syd says, "We go back the same as we came. Bernardo goes to get the Rover."
Bernardo leads and Syd provides the rearguard. As soon as we expand into a column, the lionesses' heads pop up and follow our exit.
We move as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw. Once we're out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trots off, and I am now in the lead, careful to back-track our own footprints.
Soon we're in the Rover headed back to the clearing. The male has not roared again. One of the lionesses opens her eye as we drive up, then shuts it again and flattens her ears. We are an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.
Syd tells us that these sisters are the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory. Another pride recently moved in and killed all their relatives. That was the reason they did not answer the male lion. We were lucky; if they had answered, he would have come running.
One of the sisters has recently been in a fight. She has a wound on her shoulder and has not eaten while healing. Her ribs are showing.
"They do not bring food to each other," Syd says. "She has to be well enough to hunt."
We watch the sisters nap. We’ve evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we're caged in a vehicle.
"Will they make it?" one of us asks.
"Do you feel sorry for them?" someone else adds.
"Yes," Syd says, "yes. But that is just my feeling. If they move to another territory, they will be okay."
The lionesses nap side-by-side. Without opening her eyes the healthy one raises a front paw and drapes it over her sister's neck.